Fundamental rights and neoliberalism in Crisis Spain (and Crisis EU)

Political tensions in Spain are a microcosm of a broader conflict between human rights and neoliberalism that is playing itself out in the EU and beyond

Owen ParkerOn the back of its local elections Spain has been heralded as a positive news story for the European left.  This is the case, especially, in its major cities, Madrid and Barcelona, where two former political activists with links with the ‘indignados/15M’ movement have taken office as mayor.  They are, respectively, Manuela Carmena, a former judge and labour law campaigner, and Ada Colau, a leader in the PAH (Mortgage Victims Platform) that has successfully campaigned against housing repossession and eviction throughout the crisis and become a source of inspiration for movements in other cities (via in particular this film).

The elections shook the political establishment, particularly the ruling Partido Popular (PP), which suffered its worst results in over 20 years.  They offer a stark warning to both mainstream parties (the PP and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)), given that national elections are due in late 2015.

Incumbent local Spanish authorities are worried too.  In particular, the police forces in both cities have expressed their concerns.  To their dismay Carmena has said she will appoint a Podemos counsellor to oversee the local police in Madrid.  And some in the leadership of the Barcelona local police resigned following the election of Colau.

Both women (who have had their own run-ins with the police) have expressed particular concerns with respect to the policing of protests and the size of ‘anti-riot’ police forces (‘antidisturbios’).  Interestingly, similar reforms of the police have been put on the table in Greece since Syriza came to power.

The Spanish police have been widely criticised by, among others, Amnesty International and the Council of Europe for excessive use of force in the context of the groundswell of protest that has been a direct consequence of the crisis and policies of austerity.  The possible restraining of policing at the local level is therefore good news.

But it ought not be overstated.  Spain still has one of the highest ratios of police to citizens in the EU and governments at the regional level (in the case of Catalonia) and national level have their own police forces.

Even more significantly, a controversial public security law is set to come into force in July.  Passed at the national level by the ruling PP, it has been widely condemned by human rights organisations in Spain and beyond for clamping down on the right to free assembly and expression and imposing punitive fines on those that do not follow new rules set down in the law.  As with all such laws, its full effects will only be known once it is implemented.

But critics have warned that it may have a particularly pernicious effect on groups, such as the PAH, that organise spontaneous protests in the context of property repossessions.   Clauses in the new law also prevent the dissemination of images that might put police at risk.  Journalists and protestors see these as potentially delimiting the possibility of holding police accountable.

As the University of Sheffield’s Stefanie Pukallas has noted, MEPs have been critical of the law, pointing to its incompatibility with the EU’s commitment to human rights.  But the European Commission has – despite coming under pressure from Spanish and international human rights activists – been unwilling to condemn Spain, noting that security issues are a matter for national authorities.

The Commission’s silence on this law and on a broader set of human rights issues that have emerged in the context of the crisis is unsurprising, given its own culpability in the creation of the conditions that have spawned such abuse.  Indeed, notwithstanding a rhetorical and foundational commitment to human rights and democracy, the EU has more generally during the course of the crisis privileged a neoliberal austerity agenda, which has shown itself to be incompatible with such a commitment.

This is manifest in the erosion of social and economic rights: inter alia, social protection, workers rights and housing rights.  It is also manifest in moves on occasion to clamp down forcefully on opposition to this agenda and in so doing threaten fundamental rights to association, assembly and expression.

Neoliberalism’s assault on certain social and economic rights is unsurprising; capitalist competition is, after all, in perennial tension with the notions of cooperation and solidarity that underpin such rights.  But its assault on fundamental rights of expression and association perhaps does come more as a surprise to many, particularly to those in countries such as Spain and Greece who saw in ‘the market’ the possibility to throw off the shackles of dictatorship and authoritarianism.

Indeed, neoliberalism is consistent with and requires certain rights.  In particular, an idealised economic competition is underpinned by rules of private property and non-discrimination (on all grounds other than economic, including national).  Moreover, a market rationality can support a wide range of civil and political rights to the extent that these ensure autonomy from government in economic affairs.  This is the ostensibly ‘open’ society revered by market liberals.

But the crisis of the EU has illustrated that neoliberalism and its advocates – an ensemble of powerful private and public actors, including many governments – cannot abide threats to neoliberalism itself and will seek to supress fundamental rights when they permit opposition to it.  In effect, democracy and rights come into conflict with capitalism, enabling academic commentators on the left to speak of an authoritarian neoliberalism or a post-democratic era in Europe.

In the apparent absence of mainstream social-democratic alternatives, the seeds of the left’s opposition to neoliberalism and this undermining of rights are being sown for the moment principally at the local level among ‘precarious city dwellers’.  This is rightly a source of much hope, particularly as the spokespeople of those very city dwellers take political office in Madrid and Barcelona.  But these seeds will need to grow and spread beyond these cities if a genuinely sustainable challenge to neoliberalism is to be realised.

This will be no easy task as Syriza’s travails in negotiating with the EU have recently shown.  However, what is for sure is that a coalescence of leftist opposition at transnational level must begin with the championing of the foundational importance of fundamental rights – the condition of possibility for democracy and social justice – to the European project itself.

As Colau has put it, ‘taking back Barcelona is just the first step.’